How does the use of color imagery in "The Open Boat" enhance the reader's understanding of the story itself?
Perhaps the lack of color is more significant than color itself in this Naturalistic story of Crane's. For, the first line of "The Open Boat" suggests the uninvolvement of Nature in the lives of the characters of this story: "None of them knew the colour of the sky." The " grim water" on which their eyes are fixed is "slate" and "white."
That Nature is indifferent to the men is evidenced in Crane's line," In the wan light the faces of the men must have been grey." Even when Nature does display vibrant color, the men are too concerned with their efforts to save themselves, an effort in which Nature is uninvolved:
The sun swung steadily up the sky, and they knew it was broad day because the colour of the sea changed from slate to emeral green streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow. The process of the braking day was unknown to them. They were aware only of this effect upon the colour of the waves that rolled toward them.
And, in the midst of this incongruent play of color, an "on-shore wind" arises. The men react to this good fortune with silence, feeling that to express "any particular optimism at this time...to be childish." Still, the captain encourages the men, saying that they will get ashore "if this wind holds."
As if to remind the reader of position of the men with respect to Nature, Crane describes the canton-flannel gulls who fly overhead, staring at the men "with black bead-like eyes." Unlike the men, they do not need to be concerned with the "wrath of the sea." These black eyes are omnious and the reader sees the men in the boat as helpless victims against the indifferent wrath of the sea. This threat from Nature, is further exemplified by the description of the waves that spill into the boat. Crane describes them as "like white flames."
As the men grow closer to the lighthouse, their hopes increase,
It [the lighthouse] had now almost assumed colour, and appeared like a little grey shadow on the sky. The man at the oars could not be prevented from turning his head rather often to try for a glimpse of this little grey shadow.
Their hopes are shattered, however, when they realize that the "long black shadow" of land is uninhabited. Then, the wind dies slowly down and the grimness of the men's efforts is reflected in the further use of sky as "the grey, desolate east," and the small "black figure" they see on shore. As the sea pulls them back out, the shore grows "dusky." "Grey-faced..they mchanically, turn by turn" row the boat, their hopes fading like the "help" they thought they were getting from Nature.
Colors underline the thoughts of the men at this time:
During this dismal night, it may be remarked that a man would conclude that it was really the intention of the seven mad gods to drown him, depite the abominable injustice of it....The man felt it would be a crime most unnatural
Nature, however, continues its indifference, for the men are able to come close enough to the shore and jump in and swim to the shore, all but one, that is. Unmoved by the safety of the men, or the death of the oiler, the "white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight and the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on the shore..." Comprehending this indifference, the men "felt that they could then be interpreters."